How robotics and AI helped Hippo Harvest raise $21 million to grow lettuce


If you think growing leaves is easy, think again.

Lettuce is not the most difficult crop in the world, but as any farmer knows, many problems arise between planting and harvest. The range runs from pests to pathogens to rain – both too little and too much.

To protect tender greens from the cruel world, many growers moved their crops indoors – sprawling greenhouses or buzzing warehouses became the new homes for all kinds of crops. But demons also lurk within, and lately, they’ve been the profit-and-lose type. In fact, more losses than profits.

Indoor farming startups have been the darlings of the startup world in recent years, with their tech-forward focus generating an estimated $3 billion in investment between 2012 and 2022, according to Basic Crunch. Yet over the past year, funding for the sector has declined: AppHarvest And Fifth season both filed for bankruptcy; Iron Ox licensed almost half of its workforce; And Bowery Agriculture experienced rounds of layoffs and saw its valuation reduced by Fidelity.

With headwinds like these, it looks like the area is headed for a dust bowl.

There are still some green shoots. Hippo harvest recently raised a $21 million Series B with its repurposed warehouse robots, TechCrunch has exclusively learned.

Additionally, the round values ​​the startup, after money, at $145 million, according to PitchBook – a nice step up from its previous valuation of $42 million. The round was led by Standard Investments with participation from Congruent Ventures, Amazon Climate Pledge Fund, Hawthorne Food Ventures and Energy Impact Partners.

In some ways, Hippo Harvest is like its competitors: It hopes to grow food more efficiently using less land and water. But what sets it apart in this space is the fact that it’s more of a robot startup than an indoor farming company.

Many indoor farming businesses rely on automation. Computers control everything from heat and humidity to nutrient levels in hydroponic systems. Trays full of ripe produce slide along the tracks so they can be harvested.

“If you went to an Amazon warehouse 15 years ago, you would see something that looks a lot like greenhouses today: pneumatic systems, gantry systems, a lot of fixed process automation,” Eitan said Marder-Eppstein, CEO of Hippo Harvest, to TechCrunch.

But Amazon’s warehouses are completely different now. Robots move in a hurry, moving entire shelves of merchandise from one location to another, optimizing the layout based on demand.

These robots have become so widely used that they have become a commodity, Marder-Eppstein said. “We saw this opportunity to say, ‘Hey, what if we took these robots and turned them into tractors for our greenhouses?’ ” “, did he declare.

It’s a decision that would shape the entire company. “We have returned to the way nurseries were run in the past. It’s really old-school, with a person with a watering can walking around. But now we have a robot that can do this.

The robots also allow Hippo Harvest to run more experiments and glean data for its machine learning algorithms. When Marder-Eppstein and his co-founder Wim Meeussen began studying greenhouses, he said they kept running into a problem: “These systems run on these big recirculating plumbing loops,” Marder-Eppstein said. Eppstein.

The shared loop meant they didn’t know how many nutrients each plant received, and they couldn’t separate each plant’s microbiome from others (plants rely heavily on their microbiome to make the most of the nutrients they have ). Such a setup would have significantly limited the number of experiments they could conduct.

So instead of plants being placed in the same shared hydroponic loop, Hippo Harvest places them in individual cells within three-foot-square modules. This separation not only allowed the greenhouse to test more variables, but it also inadvertently solved a problem that has vexed hydroponic greenhouse operators: pathogens that spread quickly through the shared loop and kill an entire crop.

In a Hippo Harvest greenhouse, plant modules sit on a grid of posts and are separated by small aisles. The robots sneak under apartments and pop up in walkways to deliver water and nutrients and collect data. When the plants are mature, they lift the trays and transport them to warehouses for harvesting.

Hippo Harvest sticks to greenhouses, avoiding vertical farms in an attempt to save on capital and operating expenses. (Vertical farms require more intensive lighting, heating and ventilation.)

The company claims it can grow greens using up to 92% less water, 55% less fertilizer and without pesticides compared to traditional farming, although it does not disclose the carbon footprint of its operations. Currently, its greenhouses are heated with natural gas, although Marder-Eppstein said the company is committed to reaching net zero emissions by 2040.

Hippo Harvest products are currently on sale in California through Amazon Fresh and in select small stores throughout the state, including Mar-Val and Gus’s Community Market. The company plans to remain focused on the Golden State while using its Series B funding to expand its operations.

If Hippo Harvest succeeds, it will buck the trend, no doubt to the delight of its investors. Indoor farming is going through tough times, but its potential is proving too compelling for some to ignore. Indoor farms promise to reduce water use, no small feat in an era of megadroughts, and bring produce production closer to homes and restaurants, reducing transportation costs and emissions.

All they have to do now is keep costs under control, and Hippo Harvest hopes its repurposed robots will do that.


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